Although the weather hasn’t really reflected it, it’s the middle of Winter in Michigan and that means all around Detroit drivers are waking up and walking out to their driveway to be greeted by a car with a dead or dying battery. Unfortunately, there aren’t any batteries on the market that will last forever; the typical lifespan of a car battery is usually around 4-6 years before it needs replacement. With the proper care and maintenance, you can cut down on the frequency you have to repair or replace your battery, saving you money and helping your car stay healthy in the long-run. This article will take a look at some of the easy at-home battery checks and maintenance items you can perform for little cost in your own driveway, regardless of your mechanical experience, so that you can get the most life out of your car battery before it eventually needs replacement.
Keeping Things Clean
One of the simplest actions you can take to keep your car battery running like new for as long as possible is to simply keep it clean. Over time, battery acid may build up on the outside of your battery and on the terminals, weakening the connection between your battery and battery cables, as well as potentially causing harmful corrosion under the hood of your vehicle. If, upon popping the hood, you find that your battery and terminals do need a cleaning, you’ll be happy to know that cleaning your battery and connections is actually quite simple, and you most likely already have the required tools laying around your house!
First things first, you’ll want to clean off the outside of the battery with a 50/50 mixture of distilled water and baking soda with a stiff, non-metallic brush. Make sure you remove and clean any casing or hardware securing your battery at this time to ensure there’s no hidden corrosion left on your battery. Be sure to also clean any other dirt, residue, or anything else that may be on the battery- a dirty battery can experience current drain and leave you stranded!
Next up, you’ll want to loosen the cables on the battery and carefully remove them. Make sure that, when removing the cables, you start by first removing the negative cable, followed by the positive cable. This will prevent any electrical arcing or shorting that could occur and harm you and your vehicle. If the cables don’t easily come off once loosened, use a cable puller to safely remove them. Never pull or pry on the battery posts while trying to remove the cables, as this could damage the terminals or even crack the battery casing, which may result in a dangerous battery acid spill. Once the cables have been safely removed, continue cleaning the remaining corrosion from the battery posts with your baking soda solution or a specialized battery post cleaning agent. Flush the battery with a little bit of cold, distilled water and make sure everything is dry before reconnecting the cables. It’s important that you reconnect the cables in the opposite order they were removed, starting first by attaching the positive cable and then attaching the negative cable, to again avoid any electrical arcing or short circuits. Double check that the cables are secured properly to provide the best possible electrical connection and consider using battery pads and lube while reinstalling your battery; they can help prevent corrosion and prolong the life of your battery and usually cost under $5. Finally, make sure your hold-down bar is secure- vibrations and bumpy roads can damage a battery that isn’t properly being held in place.
On a side note, keep in mind that disconnecting the battery while cleaning will shut off the car’s computer and various other electric-based functions. When this happens, some features may have to be reset, like the clock, radio presets, seat position, etc. If you want, you can pick up devices to keep your car powered while changing the battery to avoid “memory loss” in your vehicle due to a lack of power.
Fluids and Electrolytes
Your battery relies on an electrolyte mixture of acid and water inside its cells in order to receive and maintain a charge. Over time, however, the electrolyte levels of your battery may change, leading to a decrease in your battery’s performance and, if left unchecked, could shorten the overall lifespan of your battery. Your battery is especially susceptible to changes in electrolyte levels when it’s exposed to extreme temperatures. Although it takes a lot to completely freeze your battery, in cold weather the electrolytes are unable to perform at their maximum capacity, lowering the efficiency and performance of your battery. On the other hand, if exposed to hot temperatures for a prolonged period of time, your electrolyte mixture can start to evaporate from within your battery. Not having enough fluid in your battery will lower the amount of charge the battery can hold, and your battery eventually can die if left without electrolytes. Luckily for you, some newer car batteries are “maintenance-free” and don’t require you to monitor and adjust electrolyte levels. For those of you with a traditional “hands-on” battery, you can rest easy knowing that checking and adjusting the electrolyte levels, if necessary, is actually quite the simple process.
You’ll start by carefully removing the battery cell covers in order to check the level of electrolytes. A normal battery should have about a half inch of fluid in their battery, or the electrolytes should reach the bottom of the fill hole. If you find your battery is low, carefully add distilled water, being sure not to overfill. Once the water is added, make sure to wipe down any spills and let the water sit and mix with the electrolyte mixture for a few hours before using the battery. If you find a leak or crack while adding water, it’s unfortunately time to replace that battery.
Stay Charged Up
Even with normal weather conditions and proper electrolyte levels, there are still a few ways your battery can be left with no charge. First, and most obvious, is the use of too many electrical accessories, or the use of electrical accessories while your vehicle is off. When your car is running and driving, your battery is continuously being charged, giving you “unlimited” electricity while you drive. When the engine is off, however, all the electronics in the vehicle rely on the charge your battery has stored up.
There are many ways the charge your battery has can be impacted, both positively and negatively (pun intended). Having your car sit for too long without being used, taking irregular short trips in your car, and leaving on lights or electronics can all drain your battery over time. It’s best practice to unplug or turn off all the lights and electronics in your car when you finish driving and plan your trips so that your car gets regular use and isn’t being repeatedly turned on and off for short trips. By driving regularly and for longer periods of a time, you can make sure your battery is receiving a full charge while on the road. If you’re storing your car for a long period of time, do your best to store it in a covered, climate-controlled environment. It’s in your best interest to buy a battery charger made for long-term storage in this situation; these chargers continually check your battery’s charge and only send voltage when needed. Leaving a battery on a normal charger for an entire season can damage or destroy the battery and could potentially cause a fire or explosion from overcharging.
If you don’t have a charger designed for long term storage, try to at least make sure your vehicle is safe from the elements and the battery isn’t in too-cold or too-hot of an environment. Every few weeks, perform a battery test and charge if needed until you bring your vehicle out of storage. A normal 12V battery should test at 12.6V or higher to maintain a maximum charge. If you don’t have a battery tester or charger, you can do a simple test with your headlights. Turn your car on and idle it, are the headlights dim? If they are, and they get brighter as you rev the engine, that’s an indicator that your battery may have a low charge, and it’s a good idea to charge the battery up. Another sign your battery may be low on charge is your engine turning over slowly (or not at all) when you try to start the vehicle.
Something Smells Funny…
Sulfation is a term used to describe the accumulation of lead sulfate crystals inside a battery’s plates over time. Unfortunately, sulfation is something that can happen to any battery if it’s left with no charge for too long, and a bad case of sulfation may be difficult to reverse and may require replacement of your battery. Sulfation starts as soon as your battery drops below its baseline charge, which, in the case of a 12V battery, is anywhere below roughly 12.6V. The longer the battery sits below its proper charge level, the larger the crystals grow on your battery’s plates. Large crystals can be very difficult to break down and recharge, however it can be done. There are special chargers on the market with “de-sulfation” modes that gradually dissolve the crystals over time and recharge them back into normal material. It’s in your best interest, however, to try to avoid sulfation altogether in order to prolong your battery’s life. An indicator that sulfation may have started in your battery, besides the battery holding little to no charge, is a sulfur or rotten-egg smell coming from the battery. Besides keeping your battery charged to the proper levels, storing your vehicle in a way that minimizes extreme temperature fluctuations can help to prevent sulfation.
No matter how well you maintain your battery, eventually it will need to be replaced. Most batteries have a chart on the casing explaining the expected life span of the battery. If you notice you’re approaching the end of your battery’s service life, it’s best to replace it sooner rather than later, even if you aren’t currently experiencing problems with it. Replacement batteries are selected based on the battery’s “Group Number” and “Cold Cranking Amps (CCA)” ratings. It’s important you select the correct replacement battery for your vehicle so that everything works properly and safely under the hood.
The battery Group Number is an industry standard regarding the physical size of the battery, the way it’s secured under the hood, the type of its terminals and location of said terminals. It’s important that your replacement battery is the same Group Number as the old one to make sure everything fits properly. If there isn’t a Group Number, you’ll have to buy a new OEM battery to replace your old one.
The CCA, on the other hand, is a little less strict. Your replacement battery should have the same CCA rating as the old battery at minimum, however it’s okay to replace your old battery with a higher- rated CCA battery, so long as the Group Number matches the original battery. Your vehicle will regulate the current that the battery outputs, so having a higher CCA rating shouldn’t give you any issues, however using a battery with a lower CCA rating can cause electrical system problems or may fail to power all the devices in your car.
Overall, there are a lot of factors that go into properly maintaining your vehicle’s battery. Failing to regularly check and clean your battery could end up costing you big time through frequent replacements, but with a few simple steps you can avoid costly repairs and replacements, and prevent yourself from being stranded somewhere with a dead battery. When it eventually is time to replace your car’s battery, make sure you bring your old battery core in to be properly recycled, helping both the environment and your wallet.
If your car battery is starting to die on you, or if you’re looking for the right tools to maintain your current battery for as long as possible, Holbrook Auto Parts is your one-stop shop for all your battery needs! We carry everything you need, from battery pads and lube to jumpers, chargers, battery testers, and battery replacements. Stop in today, we’d love to help keep you #OnTheMove!
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